According to Page and Jacobs, Americans are conservative egalitarians who accept higher taxes and more government spending so as to give people equal opportunities

by Andrew Gelman on April 14, 2012 · 13 comments

in Public opinion

As the saying goes, everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. Or, to put in political terms, people want lower taxes and more government services—with the gap filled, presumably, with a mixture of borrowed funds and savings realized by cutting government waste. In their 2009 book “Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality,” Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs put together survey data and make a convincing case that this cynical story is not a fair summary of public opinion in the United States. Actually, most Americans—Democrats and Republicans alike—support government intervention in health care, education, and jobs, and are willing to pay more in taxes for these benefits.

Page and Jacobs recognize that Americans are confused on some of these issues, for example not realizing that sales taxes cost lower-income people more, as a percentage of their earnings, while the personal income tax hits higher-income groups more, on average. The result is widespread confusion about what are the most effective ways to pay for government spending. People are also confused about how to cut the budget. To choose a well-known example that is not in the book at hand, Americans overwhelmingly support reducing the share of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid, but they also vastly overestimate the current share of the budget that goes to this purpose (average estimate of 15%, compared to an actual value of 0.3%).

Confusions on specific tax and budget items aside, Page and Jacobs are persuasive that majority public opinion is consistent with tax increases targeted to specific government programs aimed at bringing a basic standard of living and economic opportunity to all Americans. They discuss how survey respondents generally feel that such an expansion of the role of government is consistent with generally expressed free-market attitudes, a philosophy which they call “conservative egalitarianism.”

This is a book of public opinion, not policy, and the authors offer no judgment on whether the public’s majority preference is achievable. For example, a vast majority of Americans—including 80% of Republicans—feel that “Government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to” (p. 59), and another clear majority—this time including 60% of Republicans—agree with the statement that “The government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job” (p. 62). It is an open question whether these goals are possible given the tax increases that voters are willing to accept.


However, as Page and Jacobs point out, to the extent that politicians are responding to voters’ policy preferences, it does not seem that fear of taxes or of big government should get in the way of implementing programs that people want.

Page and Jacobs discuss how the influence of lobbyists, campaign contributors, and ideological activists may be making politicians afraid to take an active part in fighting economic inequality, despite broad public support for government programs in this area. I suspect that a larger issue is the question of whether such programs will really work. The evidence is that national elections are won and lost based on economic conditions, and parties will be loath to implement policies that they think will slow the economy down at election time, however popular they might be in the moment. This is not to say the voters are wrong to support governmental action to reduce economic inequality but rather to indicate a way in which economically conservative views among the political class could blunt politicians’ responses to such desires.

In summary, Page and Jacobs offer an excellent synthesis of Americans’ majority views, demonstrating that, at least in the short term, there is broad agreement on an active governmental role in reducing inequality, within the context of providing opportunity in a free-market economy. Their data are taken from a survey conducted in summer 2007, a year before the recent economic meltdown.

And now for some detailed comments

The above is my review of Page and Jacobs’s book, “Class War?” for Political Science Quarterly. Due to space limitations, I could not give my specific comments on the book, so I’ll put them here.

xi: The authors write: “The evidence shows that most Americans are both philosophically conservative and operationally liberal” [italics included in original]. But I’m not convinced this is the case. What they’ve actually shown is that:
(a) Most Americans are philosophically conservative (in the context of their survey), and
(b) Most Americans are operationally liberal (again, as defined by their survey responses).

But does this really mean that most Americans are both (a) and (b)? Let’s pull out the Venn diagram and consider the following plausible scenario:
-35% of Americans are philosophically and operationally conservative
-30% are philosophically conservative and operationally liberal
-35% are philosophically and operationally liberal.
In this case, 65% of people are philosophically conservative (see statement (a) above) and 65% are operationally liberal (see statement (b)), but less than a third have both these characteristics.

I’m not saying this is exactly what’s happening. What I am saying is that I didn’t see Page and Jacobs ruling out this possibility. I suspect they were unintentionally overstating their findings because it’s human nature to think deterministically.

p.4: Page and Jacobs repeat the line that,because Bill Gates’s wealth was increasing by $1 million per hour (that’s $300 per second), that, “If he dropped a $1000 bill on his way to work, he could have lost money by stopping to pick it up.” This has always seemed silly to me, as it implies that he wouldn’t be making that $300 per second had he stopped to pick up that bill on the street. It seems more likely to me that his investments would’ve increased in value all by themselves during those few seconds. This is a small point, but I’m raising it because, by giving this story, Page and Jacobs are buying into the rich-dudes’-time-is-so-valuable argument that is one of the justifications of massive economic inequality. If they want to fight inequality, I’d suggest they look at some of their assumptions more carefully.

p.35: They quote someone who makes $63,000 per year and comments that “people in the middle . . . are definitely pinched.” I don’t doubt that people feel this way and that they have tough economic choices to make, but I’ve always wondered about the whole “middle-class squeeze” thing, the idea that, somehow, it’s worse to be in the middle. I see how being in the middle is worse than making more, but is it really worse than making less? I mean, if it was really better to make, say, $30,000 per year, I’m sure it would be possible to arrange. I suspect that what’s really going on is that a middle-class salary doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to. Still, though, people lower down are doing worse, no?

p.39: Here they interview someone who works at the Fish and Wildlife Service. Where did they find these people? I’m guessing these are survey respondents who answered some open-ended questions, but I didn’t see this explained anywhere in the book. As a statistician, I’m not so impressed by these sorts of quotes—with 600 respondents, I’m assuming you can pull out all sorts of quotes—but maybe this makes the book more readable, I dunno.

p.46: Regarding views on immigration and trade policies, Page and Jacobs write, “they have become resented symbols for millions of Americans who are worried about making ends meet or holding their spot at the economic table.” I don’t know if this is quite fair. Immigration and trade policies are not just “symbols”; they represent real choices.

p.50: Page and Jacobs write: “But what do ordinary Americans think about government? Some—especially devotees of the major political parties—may be conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to simply react by habit to the rhetoric of their tribal leaders. What’s striking, however, is that most Americans are not so easily programmed. Surprisingly large majorities defy the stereotypes of ‘government haters’ or ‘collectivizers.’” The way this is written, it seems to imply that Democratic leaders are “collectivizers.” But I don’t think that’s anything like an accurate description of where the Democratic Party, or its liberal wing, is coming from. Here I think the authors’ desire for bipartisan symmetry may be leading them off track.

p.64: Here the authors make a bunch of comparisons of life expectancies in the United States and other countries. This is fine, but they muddy the waters by inappropriately comparing males and females. For example, “A male born in some sections of Washington, D.C., has a life expectancy thirteen years shorter than a woman born in rural Minnesota.” Thirteen years is big enough that there’s no need to cheat by comparing men to women. Comparing life expectancies of men in one place with women somewhere else is the demographic equivalent of not adjusting for inflation in a price comparison.

p.65: A slight statistical significance problem. In a discussion of health care options, Page and Jacobs write, “somewhat larger majorities of Republicans support an employer-based system, while more high-income earners would prefer the direct government route.” Is this comparison statistically significant? I don’t think so. The numbers are on page 66. The first comparison is 68% for Republicans compared to 65% for all Americans. From the Appendix, the sample size is 608. Let’s assume 200 of them are Republicans: then it’s 136 out of 200 Republicans saying yes on this question, and 395 out of 608 in total. The comparison is then 136/200 – 259/408 = 0.045, with a standard error of sqrt ((136/200)(1-136/200)/200 + (259/408)(1-259/408)/408) = 0.041. The difference is not at all statistically significant. Or possibly they’re comparing the 68% of Republicans to the 59% of high-income Americans. It’s harder to figure out the comparison here, because of the overlap between the categories, but I suspect this one is not statistically significant either. My point here is not that they shouldn’t make the comparison, but rather that they should be a little more careful in interpreting what they find.

p.85: They talk about slapping a 40% income tax on billionaire hedge fund managers. This is fine, but why do they stop at 40%? There must be a rationale here, but I don’t see how it fits in with the rest of their argument. Similarly, they talk about an estate tax on estates worth over $100 million. Why do they set the limit so high? There must be lots of estates above, say, $10 million, that could be taxed. Again, there are legitimate policy disagreements on what level to set these taxes, but I’m surprised to see Page and Jacobs considering such low rates, given their stated interest in reducing economic inequality.

p.108: Near the end of their book, Page and Jacobs allude to the inclusion of nonvoters into the political process. I think they’d be interested in the work of Nagler and Leigley on the possible political effects of increasing voter turnout, not only changing the composition of the electorate, but possibly also altering the terms of political debate.

p.111: They weight their survey according to the number of adults in the household. This is no big deal, but my research with Tom Little suggests that weighting by #adults is an overcorrection; you’d be better off weighting by the square root of number of adults (or simply poststratifying).

Disclaimer: I work next door from Bob Shapiro, who collaborated with Ben Page on the classic 1992 book, The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences. And Page works in the political science department at Northwestern, which turned me down when I interviewed for a job there several years ago. (Actually, it was worse than that: they didn’t even fully reimburse my travel costs!) But I don’t think either of these associations is affecting my comments above.

P.S. I posted this a couple years ago but I’m reposting here because I think these issues remain relevant.

{ 13 comments }

Ben Donahower April 14, 2012 at 4:34 pm

I’ve found the that confusion that you noted that American sometimes have is difficult to correct. Take the foreign aid example. I’ve had conversations with people who suggest that we should reduce our foreign aid to save money and when I explain that that amount only accounts for a small percent of the overall budget, I’m often told that I’m wrong. It’s funny how when people hold a political view, or any strongly held perspective, that facts don’t seem to matter so much.

Henry April 14, 2012 at 5:57 pm

However, as Page and Jacobs point out, to the extent that politicians are responding to voters’ policy preferences, it does not seem that fear of taxes or of big government should get in the way of implementing programs that people want.

How do they show this – or more specifically, that the former does not dominate the latter? I just don’t see how you can infer very much from vague preferences such as “govt should spend whatever is necessary to provide good education”. I mean, that’s an attitude that’s really hard to disagree with in the abstract if you’re not a libertarian. But what does that mean in the context of a budget with trade-offs between taxes, debt and other govt spending?

Larry Jacobs April 14, 2012 at 11:00 pm

Americans do harbor suspicions of “big govt” that are surprising widespread not only among libertarians and Republicans but also Democrats. What is key is whether the debate is framed in these broad, abstract terms (where Americans will recoil from govt and taxes) or framed in terms of specific programs that address concrete problems that threaten every day folks — even if it means raising taxes. This more operational liberal strain of public thinking appeals not only to liberals and Democrats but also to many/majorities of Republicans and more affluent. This is evident in public thinking about Soc Security, medicare, education (including early childhood), etc.

Health reform illustrates the pattern — ambivalence or disapproval when framed as “Obamacare” but large majorities for the specific components that address challenges of seniors affording prescription drugs, insurer schemes to drop/curtail benefits or hike rates for ill, and so forth.

This prism opens a vantage point into 2012 election — Romney will frame his case against Obama in broad/abstract issues of too much govt while Obama will counter by focussing on specific programs aimed at concrete threats and needs.

Put another way, Americans tilt center right in philosophical terms but are liberally inclined when it comes to the everyday operations of their lives and those of their family and friends.

Nadia April 15, 2012 at 1:14 am

Dear Professor Jacobs,
I wanted to ask you about something. I emailed Professor Gelman with a question relating to a recent debate and brought up your thesis as potentially resolving the claim. A moderate Democratic group Third Way recently advocated that Democrats abandon their push for higher taxes on the rich using a survey of independents in battleground states who did not have strongly favorable views of Obama or Romney. They found this group” “Swing Independents”, care about “opportunity,” not fairness, prioritize cutting the deficit over reducing income inequality, don’t believe the US economy is skewed to favor the wealthy and “consider themselves to be haves, not part of the have nots,” according to the report.” (Ari Berman’s words).

I read some of the commentary on this survey, and one piece particularly struck me. Basically, it asserted that Obama was losing the center with his push for higher taxes on the wealthy, and that swing voters were in Romney’s column. The author went on to talk about how extremism was in the eye of the beholder, and voters were aligned with the GOP’s vision.

Yet, when I looked back at this April survey from a Democratic polling firm, I wondered if that was all there was too it. 56% of voters opposed the Ryan budget. They were also receptive to Democratic critiques of it. I recalled your response to Prof. Gelman’s discussion of an exchange between Matthew Yglesias and Bill Galston and argued that Bill Galston may have been oversimplifying public opinion because the country is conservative, but also pragmatic. I wondered if that distinction was the key.

I did some digging back into Democracy Corps polling to get some insights into this. Democracy Corps found a very positive response to the Buffett Rule in State of the Union, while a more mixed response to the broad theme of fairness. This may reflect the conservative pragmatism of the public. Mixed on a fair shot broadly, but eagerly supportive of this specific policy.

Per D-Corps: “The dials spiked when the President made his strong populist pitch for the “Buffett Rule,” with Democrats exceeding 80 on our 0-to-100 scale and both independents and Republicans moving above 70 when he emphasized that middle class taxes should not go up. There was no polarization here, as voters across the political spectrum gave Obama high marks. One Democratic-leaning respondent noted that the middle class spends most of the money in the economy and said, “I agree with him wholeheartedly about the tax reform he’s proposing…[most people] you know, living on, you know, less than $250 thousand, and a lot of us a whole lot less than $250 thousand.” (Bolding mine; italics per the authors)

On fairness more broadly, however, here was what they found: “Dials remained flat throughout the section with independents and Republicans dropping slightly. The final sentence (“Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules”) produced a very modest average 7-point rise in the dials. The same voters who dialed up when he spoke about protecting the the middle class against taxes and asking the top earners to pay more, reacted only modestly positively to “fairness” as the goal.”

Moreover, another polling firm that does a lot of work for Democrats asked their sample to choose between two hypothetical Democrats, one focused on bipartisanship and deficit reduction and another who attacked Republican budget cutting and demanded tax fairness. Their sample preferred the latter by double digits.

It seems like the key is the philosophically conservative but operationally liberal thing tilt of the public.

Nadia April 15, 2012 at 1:26 am
Larry Jacobs April 15, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Apologies for short response — In car heading north from Iowa city.

(1) On swing voters, see Gallups survey of 12 swin states — it shows shft toward Obama in these states and among independents (incl indep women) from Fall to April

(2) The broad framings about social justice or govt tend to tap the conservative strain of American attitudes — giving credence to the general thrust of the Third Way argument. But do note the favorable attitudes toward specific govt programs that address concrete threats related to inequality — including financial support for education, early childhood ed, particular health insurance remedies.

Henry April 15, 2012 at 8:23 am

“Put another way, Americans tilt center right in philosophical terms but are liberally inclined when it comes to the everyday operations of their lives and those of their family and friends.”

While possible, the hypothesis that they’re factually ignorant or signaling affinity seems more plausible to me.

Steven Lloyd April 14, 2012 at 7:05 pm

“Surprisingly large majorities defy the stereotypes of ‘government haters’ or ‘collectivizers.’””

I read that as meaning that lots of republicans defy the democrats’ stereotype as ‘government haters’ and lots of democrats defy the republican stereotype as ‘collectivizers’

Bruno Behrend April 15, 2012 at 10:51 am

There is a glaring missing premise/error in this otherwise interesting discussion. No seems to be discussing/correcting for the fact that these supposedly ‘successful’ (and therefore popular) programs are failing. I realize that this is a “policy point” issue overlaying a book on “public opinion,” but I think it is important nonetheless. Americans may not be well informed on the details, but I would argue that their instincts are generally pretty good – as this post suggests.

Page and Jacobs are persuasive that majority public opinion is consistent with tax increases targeted to specific government programs aimed at bringing a basic standard of living and economic opportunity to all Americans.

Here is the rub. What if these programs don’t work, or more accurately, are starting to break down? This may explain a good deal of the electorate’s schizophrenia on the issue. We support the concept of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid even as we begin to realize that these programs can not be sustained intact (or at least dramatically reformed).

Perhaps the citizenry is reacting to their belief/suspicion/dawning realization that the systems in place to do what they support will not work.

This is a book of public opinion, not policy, and the authors offer no judgment on whether the public’s majority preference is achievable. For example, a vast majority of Americans—including 80% of Republicans—feel that “Government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to” (p. 59), and another clear majority—this time including 60% of Republicans—agree with the statement that “The government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job” (p. 62). It is an open question whether these goals are possible given the tax increases that voters are willing to accept.

I doubt it is “open question” at all. The prevailing model – what Walter Russell Mead calls “The Blue Model” – is failing. Pouring money into public education’s vast and wasteful bureaucracy has not given us an “educated populace.” Neither has Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid given us retirement or health security. Perhaps we are right to want these things for society, but also right in distrusting the ability of incumbent parties, rent-seeking industries, and failing tax systems to deliver them.

This is a book of public opinion, not policy

This discussion therefore, is a bit of an evasion, because there is no “solving” the voter’s schizophrenia without better public policy. Lacking the time to delve into all the details, I would put it this way.

The voter’s are right, and the political parties, current institutions, and their policy makers are wrong.

It is the latter that have failed to provide voters with the solutions they want, and they are therefore 100% correct in wanting a) better policies, and b) unwilling to pay tax increases to a failing and inefficient system that can’t deliver on any of it’s promises.

They may not know why they are right, and they may still pay too much credence to academics to be confident in their decisions, but they are right, nonetheless.

Andrew Gelman April 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Bruno,

You write that the voters are right.

But, remember, a vast majority of Americans—including 80% of Republicans—feel that “Government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to” (p. 59), and another clear majority—this time including 60% of Republicans—agree with the statement that “The government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job” (p. 62).

So the vast majorities of voters don’t agree with you on this.

Bruno Behrend April 15, 2012 at 5:14 pm

Andrew,

“Government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to” Ask a voter who just got their property tax bill for a substandard school system, and you begin to understand how little that 80% number means.

I’d say that the electorate disagrees with me in specific, basically because they are unsure of the facts or of specific reform proposals, while they agree with me in general, that America pays more, and gets less for its education dollar.

As for the jobs number, it follows along the same lines. In general, we all want people to be able to find jobs. The number of people who actually understand job creation know (unlike most voters), that short of providing the proper foundation, there is precious little the government can do to “see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.”

This is not calling the voters stupid, but ignorant/uninformed. Both parties use this excuse when their side loses.

Here is poll question…

Americans spend more money per child on education than any nation, yet is falling behind other nations that spend less. Should the government continue spending money the same way it has, or should it spend it differently?

Here is another.

Should the education dollar follow the centralized education bureaucracy, or should it follow the child to a vast new array of independent education options?

The more informed the voter, the more likely they are to use that information to bolster the biases borne from background and environment. The Democrats have the much easier sale, as the generalized questions you post prove, despite the fact that their solutions are likely to fail.

My post above makes the point that the populace is subconsciously skeptical of turning over more money to failed systems, even as it explicitly says it supports the goals that these failed systems supposedly provide.

E April 15, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Dr. Gelman:
["...]Surprisingly large majorities defy the stereotypes of ‘government haters’ or ‘collectivizers.’” The way this is written, it seems to imply that Democratic leaders are “collectivizers.” But I don’t think that’s anything like an accurate description of where the Democratic Party, or its liberal wing, is coming from. Here I think the authors’ desire for bipartisan symmetry may be leading them off track.
—————-
That may be the case, though it should be added that the number of “government-hating” anarcho-capitalists in both leadership positions in the GOP and among the base has been largely exaggerated (by both advocates and critics), so I think there may be some legitimate “symmetry” here.

Regarding foreign aid, I’m aware that the percentage of the budget dedicated to this is very low, but criticisms of criticisms of foreign aid sometimes neglect to acknowledge that in a number of cases, people have principled objections to how the money is being spent.

Angela Natoli April 29, 2012 at 9:18 am

Focusing in on education and the poor showing of the US when compared to other nations, I have to wonder if a comparison can really be made between the US system of manadatory education until ages 16/17 (depending on state) where all children, including those with mental challenges and those who are still learning English, have been tested through NCLB (which would be the most recent available date for comparison) with other models of education in other nations. Many countries weed out those who are not destined for higher education early and those children are placed on a vocational track (something the US has reduced drastically over the past 40 years.) If we only viewed the test results of the middle/upper class schools across the US where the majority are on track for college entrance, where would we rank in education? Our rise as a nation came through the struggles of labor unions who succeeded in making it possible for masses of people to earn a decent middle class income. This and the GI Bill catapulted millions of children to a college education. Education is affected by labor policies, trade policies, etc. Instead we are placing the blame on educators and parents unfairly in order to progress the next right wing agenda to privatize our schools and drain more tax dollars into their pockets while destroying education further.

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